Dana Yacoub, 34, recalls the gatherings of the Circassian community, held yearly on the seventeenth of April in the two villages of Bariqa and Bi’ir Ajam in the Syrian Golan. “In the beautiful springtime weather, Circassians would gather in Bariqa and Bi’ir Ajam, flocking to the villages from Damascus and its countryside, and other towns and areas in Syria. The atmosphere was joyous and friendly among families and friends, and young men and women would meet and mingle. The Circassian community is quite liberal, and has no problem with the genders mixing or with relationships forming between men and women. People would dance traditional dances while the accordion played Circassian music. These gatherings were once exclusively attended by Circassians, but in recent years there have been Syrians from other communities joining the celebration.”
There were other occasions for communal gatherings as well: people came together every 6th of May in the village of Marj al-Sultan, a Circassian-majority village in Damascus’s Eastern Ghouta suburb. It was similar to the celebrations held in the villages of the Golan, with the same friendly atmosphere and the mingling of families and friends, young men and young women.
The term Circassian, says Dana, is applied to those hailing from the North Caucasus region, including the Adyghe people, the Abkhazians, Chechens and others. All of these ethnic groups share the same origins, customs and religion, though they do not all speak the same language. Those living in the diaspora use the term Circassian amongst themselves to refer in fact to the Adyghe people, and their language is called Circassian.
The Circassians have been moving out of their ancestral homes and areas frequently over the last 150 years due to multiple conflicts and wars waged by the Russians against the North Caucus region. Many of those who left, settled in Turkey during the Ottoman era, with some of them then moving on to Arab countries, including Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Libya and Iraq. In Syria, the majority of Circassians ended up in the Golan mountains before the Israeli invasion and occupation of the area in 1967, in villages including Bariqa, Bi’ir Ajam, Al-Khishniyya, Al-Mansoura and others. Some settled in areas in Homs, Aleppo and Damascus. In fact, the Al-Muhajireen (Emigrants’) neighborhood in Damascus got its name from the number of Circassian migrants who ended up there.
There are about 200,000 Circassians living in Syria, and they enjoy the full rights of citizenship, which includes not only permission to work, but also to freely practice their culture and ethnic traditions. There are Circassian community centers and clubs that teach Circassian language and dance, and there are celebrations and meetings and other forms of civic activities particular to the community. Some Circassians have also ascended to high positions in the government, with Circassian ministers, ambassadors and members of parliament.
Though they have integrated well with Syrian society, the Circassians have still managed to hold on to their particular customs as an ethnic minority group. Their weddings, for example, follow Circassian traditions, rather than the typical Syrian ones where unions are arranged by the families and the bride and groom do not have occasion to meet before the wedding. Young Circassian men will visit the women they are courting several times before their engagement, getting to know one another in the presence of one another’s families. “The young man will come visit accompanied by a friend or a female relative,” says Dana, “and he may come for multiple visits. Then, if the girl and her family accept, they will begin preparing for the engagement or the wedding, and families on both sides will participate in the arrangements. But the agreement is always first and foremost between the young man and the young woman.”
In the past, wedding celebrations would take place over seven days, with parties and Circassian dances. Recently, however, these long celebrations have been reduced to one party over a single day, which usually takes place in a special wedding hall. The celebration is quite similar to the sort that other Syrians prepare, though some original customs remain, such as Circassian dances and the bride’s entrance into the hall accompanied by traditional Circassian music.
Some weddings take place by elopement, and this, explains Dana, “doesn’t carry the same stigma of shame for the bride’s family as it does among the Syrians. Elopement is the purest expression of a bride’s will and her absolute freedom to choose her own life partner.” Usually, a couple will elope when there are obstacles preventing a more traditional wedding. The young man, in the company of friends, or a married female relative or othersm will go and fetch the bride from the home of one of the honorable patriarchs in her family or in the village, though the bride and groom will have no contact at this time. Then, they will send a jaha, or a delegation of respected individuals to the bride’s family, hoping to get their approval for the wedding. Usually, the bride’s family will agree, but when they don’t, the girl will go back to her family home without issue and resume her normal life.
“Women play a significant role in the Circassian community,” says Dana. “According to collective mythology, a woman is capable of ending wars just by tossing her veil on the battleground between the two warring parties, causing them to stop fighting out of deference for her social position and power.”
The Circassian community certainly prefers for marriages to take place within their own ethnic group, although recently there has been a lot of flexibility in this area; it has become somewhat routine and acceptable for young Circassians to marry outside of their community.
“One of my relatives married a non-Circassian woman,” says Dana. “Though they have been married a long time now, I still don’t feel she has become a member of the family. Maybe that’s because there’s a difference between how Circassians think and act and raise their children and how others do so. For example, it’s considered shameful for a Circassian woman to marry a relative of hers because relatives are considered like siblings. It is considered completely normal for relatives of different genders to mix with and hug one another, but my relative’s wife disapproves of this and criticizes it constantly, using religion as an excuse. This is despite the fact that the majority of Circassians are Sunni Muslims, and fled their countries in the first place because of religious persecution. And yet they are not conservative in their practices. Maybe these dissimilarities seem like mere details, but in fact they make a huge difference in the long run.”
Dana says that most of the current generation no longer speaks the Circassian language. They may understand when people speak it and know some phrases or words, but can’t have a whole conversation in their mother tongues.
Circassians also have their own cuisine, and the most famous dish, says Dana, is Halfa, which are savory pastries stuffed with either Circassian cheese or boiled potatoes. They are usually served to guests or on the first days of the Eid celebration. Shibs basta, a dish of rice balls with a special sauce, walnuts and boiled chicken, is also usually served on special occasions.